USDA error cuts grazing time for local ranchers

By Sarah Meyer: PNT Staff Writer

A state lawmaker is asking the U.S. Department of Agriculture for additional grazing time for roughly 100 Roosevelt County ranchers involved in a federal program.

U.S. Rep.Tom Udall, D-N.M., said a clerical error resulted in the ranchers eligible for a special U.S. Department of Agriculture program that allowed grazing on Conservation Reserve Program lands being shortchanged about a month of grazing time.

“My constituents are suffering through no fault of their own,” Udall wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Edward Schafer. “New Mexico’s ranchers face enough challenges without being forced to suffer for USDA’s clerical errors.”

The critical feed use initiative program, which was slated to run July 2 through Nov. 10, was developed with the goal of providing some relief for livestock producers facing record-high feed costs.

However, U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour in Seattle issued a temporary restraining order July 8 after a suit was filed by the National Wildlife Federation and six affiliates over the program.

On July 24, the judge lifted the injunction, with conditions. Producers who already had received approval from the Farm Service Agency were allowed to proceed with grazing through Nov. 10; producers who had applied before July 8 could graze through Oct. 15, according to the Farm Bureau.

FSA administers the Conservation Reserve Program, which is designed to provide wildlife habitat and prevent soil erosion.

Wayne Tivis, a Roosevelt County rancher, said he and others fell under the Oct. 15 deadline because none of the contracts had been signed before July 8, even though the paperwork was complete.

“On June 30, we leave the office thinking we’ve done everything we’re supposed to,” Tivis said.

Then came the court injunction and the partial lifting of the injunction.

Tivis said thanks to the program, ranchers planned to keep cattle on CRP until Nov. 10. By then, he said, cattle could graze on winter wheat. But now, “you’re in a mess for those 25 days,” he said. “It’s a wreck.”

“It’s affected all the producers that thought we were doing what we were supposed to,” Tivis said.

The cattle producers had to pay a $75 fee for each CRP contract, and then they had to fix fence and establish water systems on land that hasn’t been used for several years, Tivis said.

FSA officials could not be reached for comment.

In spite of the reduced time, Tivis said grazing has helped the land by reducing the fuel load and thus reducing the danger of grass fires.

“It’s an extremely good benefit for the land and the producer,” he said.

Tommie Bennett, also a Roosevelt County rancher, said she’s disappointed that “we signed for four months, but we’re only getting three.”

She too said grazing has helped her land.

“It’s been wonderful for my land; it’s been wonderful for my cattle,” she said. “I’m grateful they let us have it for the three months.”